Chekhov’s Story “Sleepy”: A Case Study of a Child Living in an Abusive Environment

Tetyana Varenychenko, Holy Family University

This paper attempts to approach Chekhov’s story “Sleepy” as a special case of behavior disorder revealed through both metaphors and specific medical details that may serve as a tool for understanding the causes of this child’s extreme emotional reactions.

Every child requires sleep, a safe environment, and communication with friends, teachers, and parents (Maslow 1973, 1987). Failure to provide for these needs may cause stressful or even traumatic situations such as upsetting memories or dreams, physical or emotional damage, and even violent acts.

Applying an environmental analysis form that is used in modern special educational settings can help to reveal how Chekov created Varka’s psychological portrait as an abused child whose many characteristics are highly interdependent (Kerr and Nelson 2002: 322-323). My analysis of this story will be based on Chekhov’s understanding of the setting (one stuffy room), the time (one day/night), and the adult actions (of parents and masters). His attention to medical detail is significant for the work as a literary creation and also as a kind of special case study. Chekhov’s environmental analysis through social and psychological perspectives can help understand children’s behavioral problems that grow in a negative environment (Kataev 1979, Bilinkis 1993, and Levitan 1993). I am going to illustrate Varka’s environment, her physical condition, her needs, and her behavior through Chekhov’s art: the symbolic plane, plot tension, environmental objectivity with specific descriptive details such as size of subjects, smells, sounds, and colors as the main elements of environmental system. Chekhov creates a mood of threatening conditions: through intensive involvement specific objects and situations around little Varka overwhelm her senses as well as cause exhaustion.

Chekhov as a master of both the symbolic and the objective combines all elements of an unhealthy environmental system that kills both children: the baby (in reality) and Varka (on a symbolic plane where “the shadows, the cricket, the green stain – all of them were smiling in astonishment,” and she is sleeping like the “dead”).

An abusive environment is a violent place where children are socially isolated and destroyed, and as a result, they have traumatic experience. For example, Varka has an inflamed imagination, sick vision, and anxiety; she is hearing different voices. All this leads to her loss of self-control.

Chekhov as a behavioral scientist uses his power of observation to explain the child’s reaction in an abusive atmosphere through creating medical detail in much the same way as an environmental analysis form. Chekhov’s medical training enriches and enhances his literary creation. For example, Chekhov shows Varka’s mental state through metaphors: “her head is small as the head of a pin” and she would like “to put her head into a big, deep galosh…” Chekhov uses oppositions of size (small vs. big) to paint a picture of Varka’s mental exhaustion. He also creates a vocal device through use of the mistress’ orders to show how an excess of work can destroy normal brain reactions. Therefore our attention to Chekhov’s medical observations helps us to understand the story and the child who exhibits an extreme behavior reaction.